Sunday, 11 July 2010

How do you hold a majlis in 140 letters or less?

What was once a platform to broadcast trivialities has, in the last year or so, matured into a powerful global phenomenon.

The social networking site Twitter has more than 100 million users today. That number includes many journalists, writers and commentators who use the medium to disburse their latest articles and appearances.

Despite the relative youth of Twitter, a vernacular has already developed around it. Tweeps and tweeple, for instance, signify Twitter users, and a tweet is used to refer to a single update. Hash-tagging, or inserting a hash-tag sign, as in #AbuDhabi, signifies that the discussions are revolving around the UAE capital.

A study conducted by Spot On PR last summer found that there were more than 5,000 Twitter users in the UAE. Today, that number is undoubtedly much higher.
Although the account has not been updated since mid-May, the most popular Emirati Twitter account belongs to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the country’s Prime Minister, who has more than 340,000 followers.

Many politicians, including the US President Barack Obama, have accounts, but most of them are managed by other people and therefore the effect is diminished. You don’t feel like Barack Obama is talking to you on his Twitter account.

This is not the case, however, with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, who tweets in English, Arabic and Spanish. Sheikh Khalid’s portfolio, coupled with Bahrain’s strategic importance as the host of the US Fifth Fleet and its consistent cordial relations with neighbouring countries, makes his updates relevant to all Gulf residents.

Many Gulf citizens and residents don’t feel as connected as they would like to be to their politicians. Through Twitter, we have come to learn Sheikh Khalid’s likes and dislikes, his hopes for his country and his aspirations. We have come to learn that politicians are people like us, not just faces that appear in newspapers.

I have no doubt that politicians who are better connected to those they represent are better informed and therefore better able to do their jobs. In the Arab world, Twitter should not be discounted as a vital avenue of communications between citizens and politicians.

Twitter has also brought many expatriates and Emiratis together, creating what I called an “Emiratian” culture. For instance, there was an outpouring of public grief on Twitter when an Air India Express airliner crashed in Bangalore last May, not least because one of the victims was a 17-year-old twitter user known by her handle as netizentwo.

Twitter has also been used by organisations such as Shelter in Dubai to inform people of social events like Geek Fest and “Care Packages Day – Emergency Appeal”, which brought together scores of volunteers to collect clothes, toiletries and tin foods after hundreds of labourers were left to starve when their employer went out of business. Since we are all stakeholders in this society, the more lines of communications between us, the better.

Wild Peeta, one UAE business run by two Emirati brothers, relied completely on the power of social networking – Twitter in particular – to promote itself. The founders told EmiraTalks 1.0, a gathering organised by Emiratweet in January, that they hadn’t spent a single dirham on media advertising and had hundreds of followers on Twitter even before they opened shop.

They did it by asking potential customers what flavours they liked and which sauces they wanted to include in their sandwiches. They could have hired a consultancy and research firm to carry out a survey that would have cost thousands of dirhams to filter the results; instead, they chose to open a direct line of communication with their clientele.

The networking site became a political force during the protests that followed the Iranian elections last summer. It was so essential to the movement that the US State Department asked Twitter to delay a planned upgrade, which could have potentially interfered with the organisation of protests.

Many will continue to dismiss Twitter as a trivial phenomenon, but we have already seen it enabling community charity events, bridging decades-old communication gaps, bringing politicians and their citizens closer together, and ultimately allowing people to reach out to one another in the real world, where real events take place.

Traditionally in the Gulf, a majlis was the place where people would reach out to each other, stay in touch with the community, and perhaps seek official help. Today, Twitter has become a virtual version of that place – and it can all be done in 140 characters or less.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 11th July 2010

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